Want to skip ahead to the wildlife and animal groups breakdowns at R.N. La Isla Escondida? Click here.
Want to see NNT Production’s video expose? Check it out below.
You don’t have to do much digging to discover that, when it comes to serious nature travel and wildlife tourism opportunities in the Amazon, Colombia’s offerings, while recognizing, of course, its wonderful birding, are weak compared to neighbouring Ecuador and Peru.
A lot of this has to do with the fact that much of Colombia’s share of the Amazon (35% of the country) has been a de facto no-go zone, on and off, since the 1990s. Places like Putumayo, Caqueta and Guaviare were synonymous with kidnapping, coca and guerillas.
Armed conflict made it difficult to establish the kinds of lodges and stations in Colombia that are mainstays in Peru and Ecuador’s share of the Amazon Basin.
Much worse transportation infrastructure connectivity, as well as the logistical impediment of the Guiana Shield in the southeast, isolate a lot of the Colombian Amazon. Departments like Vaupes, Guainia and Amazonas are only accessible by air, making much of Colombia’s Amazon region more similar to that of Suriname or Guyana.
What’s more, the most popular Amazon tourism destination in Colombia, Leticia, the capital of the Amazonas department in the far south, a beautiful place in its own right and definitely the most tourist-friendly part of Colombia’s Amazon, is not really geared towards serious nature and wildlife travellers.
In my experience, it is a lot of general “ecotourism” options trying to offer a little bit of everything (often gimmicky) to everyone (including families)–fishing for piranhas, dolphin watching, some cultural tourism, a “night walk” and a trip to a primate sanctuary–at prices that aren’t really worth it if your goal is logging some serious species.
I’m sure that sounds snobbish, and if I’ve lumped in places that don’t deserve it, feel free to reach out to me via email.
But wildlife tourism in Colombia’s Amazon, by and large, pales in comparison to that of its neighbours.
Except for La Isla Escondida.
R.N. La Isla Escondida
R.N. La Isla Escondida (in English, the Hidden Island Nature Reserve), in Putumayo, is a rarity, not only as far as the Colombian Amazon is concerned but the entire biome, and one of few places in the country that can claim to be as impressive as the other, better known Western Amazonian field stations and private reserves in Ecuador and Peru.
What’s more, it owes its entire existence to a Belgian mechanical engineer (and former professional paraglider) and a local indigenous family.
La Isla is the passion project of Jurgen Beckers, a Belgian national who has lived in (on and off for a decade) and travelled the country extensively in search of birds who, with the help of a local indigenous family, purchased a plot of primary Napo rainforest several years ago and has turned it into something special.
Jurgen first came to Colombia at the end of the 1990s (an extremely tumultuous period of Colombia’s decades-long civil war) and spent the ensuing 10+ years exploring and guiding birdwatching tours all over the country. He is one of the country’s preeminent foreign birders.
Putumayo, and particularly its Amazonian foothills in the Western Cordillera, were always on his mind, but the area was simply too dangerous for most of the first two decades of the 21st century to consider visiting–a remote and hotly contested coca cultivation and drug transportation hub on the border of Ecuador.
It wasn’t until Colombia’s 2016 peace accord (precarious to this day) that a foreigner could confidently establish something like La Isla in a place like Putumayo. Jurgen seized the opportunity.
Sitting at around 850 meters above sea level, protecting 111 hectares of mostly primary Napo foothill forest, adjacent to the Santuario de Flora Plantas Medicinales Orito Ingi-Ande National Park, La Isla is a hidden gem, both in Colombia and the region.
Only just established in 2017, La Isla is known primarily as a dream birding destination, straddling an elevational range that attracts both Amazonian lowland and Andean species, many of the latter heavily range-restricted.
Black Tinamou, Buff-tailed Sicklebill, Pink-throated Brilliant, Napo Sabrewing, Coppery-chested Jacamar, and hundreds more species (450-500 total) can reliably be seen from the lodge, as well as its easily accessible and stunning canopy observation platforms–built into the canopy itself and situated around fruiting trees that, when in season, attract huge mixed flocks.
But La Isla is so much more than a birder’s paradise.
Table of Contents
Colombia’s Napo Moist Forest
La Isla is located surrounded by primary foothill Napo Moist Forest, part of a 25,000-hectare ecoregion that fans out from the Napo River Watershed in the westernmost part of Amazonia, covering portions of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.
These moist forests contain the richest species biodiversity in the entire Amazon Basin, making patches of rainforest like the kind protected by La Isla some of the most diverse anywhere on the planet.
It is also, unfortunately, some of the most threatened. Insufficient funding for protection and conservation, threats from petroleum operations (Putumayo is petroleum country), plantation agriculture, cattle ranching, hunting and the region’s long history as a key coca cultivation site, all threaten Napo Moist Forest ecosystems.
The drive from the airport in Puerto Asis to the trailhead just outside the town of Orito makes it painfully clear how and why the Amazon is so under threat.
219 species of mammals and 649 species of birds (many of them endemic) have been recorded in this ecoregion, hundreds of which are found within the 106 hectares protected by R.N. La Isla Escondida.
The reserve is a dense expanse of waterlogged terra firme forest, crisscrossed by dozens of muddy trails, creek-filled ravines, waterfalls and gulleys, every inch of it colonized by plantlife (especially epiphytes).
A (at parts) strenuous 4km hike up steep terrain and over slippery rocks (which will take a fit person going at a good pace 2-3 hours), over a hanging wooden bridge, sometimes while battling torrential foothills rain, brings you to R.N. La Isla Escondida, a paradise for:
- Macro and invert photographers
Starting with the birds, because La Isla is and began its life as a birding hotspot. A quick glance at the site’s eBird resume, and it is clear why Jurgen chose Putumayo.
The elevational gradient, quality of the forest and location near the Ecuadorian border make La Isla Escondida a top 5 birding destination in the neotropics. The mix of lowland, highland and range-restricted species is staggering.
Huge 30-or-more-species strong mixed flocks of euphonias, tanagers, honeycreepers, antwrens, ant birds, flycatchers, trogons and more can pass by the main building at a moment’s notice and when the trees surrounding the observation towers are full of fruit, the birding is almost always spectacular.
Several species of hummingbirds can be seen constantly throughout the day at the lodge’s feeders and in the heliconia gardens–including Buff-tailed Sicklebills, Grey-chinned Hermits, Fork-tailed Woodnymphs, Grey-breasted Sabrewings–and iconic species like Salvin’s Currasow are heard and seen frequently, often just a hundred metres or so from the main dining area.
What’s more, the dense forest and cooler temperatures at 850m mean you can bird all day here. Wake up early to see the elusive Buff-tailed Sicklebill flitting about the heliconias or spend the afternoon walking the 25 km of trails or in one of four towers.
The birding can be tough at a place like La Isla because there are no large feeders set up (you’ve got to do the work yourself), and the forest is dense, but the upside is that you are not restricted to a handful of golden hours in the early morning and evening like you are a lot of other places in the neotropics.
The Napo Moist Forests are home to the richest herpetofauna diversity in the world, and La Isla is a fieldherper’s paradise, albeit a tough one to herp.
63 species of reptiles species have been recorded at the site, including 37 species of snakes, 26 species of lizards, one turtle, one tortoise, and one caiman species, as well as 62 amphibian species.
Although often difficult to find in the dense primary forest–especially in upper elevation Napo Moist Forest, the Amazonian ecoregion that receives the highest annual rainfall–the herpetofauna of La Isla is very impressive.
What’s more, because of the site’s foothill elevation and its situation at a montane transition zone, Andean species are also present–sometimes at new elevational records.
Equally appealing is the opportunity to be a part of Jurgen’s citizen science project, as he sets out to survey and document as much of the reserve’s wildlife as he can–a process that is ongoing and constantly yielding new finds.
Clockwise from top to bottom: Yellow-headed Flame Snake (Oxyrhopus occipitalis), Neckband Ground Snake (Atractus torquatus), Hemprichi’s Coral Snake (Micrurus hemprichii ortoni), Rainbow Boa juvenile (Epicrates cenchria), Tropical Flat Snake (Siphlophis compressus), Forest Flame Snake (Oxyrhopus petolarius).
Both the Amazonian Bushmaster (Lachesis muta) and the Amazonian Toad-headed Pit Viper (Bothracophias hyoprora) are found with relative frequency at La Isla Escondida.
La Isla is foothills forest, so there is no varzea or oxbow lake habitat.
The rocky, cold, fast-flowing Andean streams that intersect La Isla do not make for the best frog-spawning habitat and the non-stop rain means constant flooding and washouts from mudslides and sediment.
Pristimantis and Leptodactylus species abound here, but the true tree frog diversity is much lower than at lower elevation sites.
Still, 62 species of amphibians, including some wonderful frogs and climbing salamanders, give amphibian enthusiasts a lot to enjoy.
Clockwise from top to bottom: Map Tree Frog variation (Hypsiboas geographicus), Buckley’s Slender-legged Tree Frog (Osteocephalus buckleyi), Map Tree Frog variation (Hypsiboas geographicus)
And at least one species of poison frog: Brilliant-thighed Poison Frog (Allobates femoralis)
As well as at least two species of climbing salamander (Bolitaglossa):
There is also a small pond at La Isla, just off the main building. It has become a wonderful breeding area and the most reliable place to see La Isla’s treefrog species on any given night.
Despite the elevation, there are quite a few lizard species present at La Isla (26 recorded).
The abundance of thick, dark primary forest and hilly terrain, however, makes them quite difficult to spot. Many are entirely arboreal or are very small and live in the leaf litter.
All in all, the rain and elevation at La Isla can make the herping quite difficult.
The dry season is much less marked here, which means no large seasonal congregation spots, and during the wet season, it is not uncommon to get rained out several nights in a row, with temperatures dropping into the low twenties (not ideal for cold-blooded animals).
The rain patterns tend to be like clockwork (and very frustrating), with sunny days often turning to torrential downpours at around 5 or 6 p.m., as the warm jungle suddenly cools, releasing impressive quantities of water.
Even when it is comparatively cold, however, viper species, frogs and salamanders can still be seen, and the daytime herping at La Isla can be quite productive–especially along the much wider main trail, where there are more canopy openings and spaces providing basking areas and thoroughfares.
In summation, the herping at La Isla is hard but well worth it and while anything can turn up at any time, the less rainy months between November and March are usually better bets.
Butterflies and moths
For lepidopterists, Napo Moist Forest is Mecca, an evolutionary and dispersal centre for Neotropical butterflies, with high levels of endemism.
Butterfly activity around the lodge (particularly its wonderful gardens) and throughout the surrounding forests is constant–especially the myriad species of delicate, transparent Glasswing Butterflies.
Dozens of Morpho, Diaethria, Heliconius, Siproeta, Dione and other species flit about the gardens and throughout the open-air areas of the lodge during the day.
The moth diversity around La Isla is even more spectacular.
I was fortunate enough to be at La Isla while a group of scientists from Colombia’s Alexander Von Humboldt Institute were visiting, including their head of entomology, who set up a moth trap one evening:
This, apparently, wasn’t even that impressive a haul.
La Isla is heaven for invert lovers and macro photographers.
Part of Jurgen’s objective with La Isla was not only to create a one-of-a-kind wildlife travel destination but to try and keep La Isla’s ecological footprint as small and innocuous as possible.
Much of the fresh produce eaten at the lodge (which always depends on the season), and particularly the fruit–pineapple, papaya, lulo and passion fruit–comes from the pesticide-free gardens and greenhouses immediately surrounding it. This means insects abound.
Every step you take around La Isla and every bush you brush up against produces a flurry of insect activity. Rarities and oddities are everywhere.
What is noticeably lacking at La Isla is the abundance of neotropical freshwater fish found at lower elevations in the Amazon.
Here, the water flows down from the high Andes. The creeks and rivers are rocky, fast flowing and cold.
With that said, the area is not devoid of freshwater fish.
A species of Knifefish inhabits the streams surrounding the lodge and is easily seen in the pond at night.
At least one species of armoured catfish can also be found here, as can at least one species of montane river tetra, and freshwater eels.
La Isla also offers wonderful mammal-watching opportunities. 44 species of micro and macro mammals have been observed and recorded–by visitors, employees and camera traps–over the years.
Brown-mantled Tamarin monkeys visit the fruiting trees around the lodge almost daily,
Brown Wooley Monkeys are often observable from the birding towers.
At night, Kincajou, Tayra and Mouse Possums are frequently seen in the trees immediately surrounding the lodge, and walking the trails involves non-stop close encounters with bats.
Jaguar, Margay Cats, Ocelot and Puma have also been seen, both by Jurgen’s camera traps and by the local indigenous family that helps Jurgen run the place, as have Andean Spectacled Bear, Tamandua, and deer.
Accommodations, Amenities and Atmosphere
Accommodations at La Isla are simple but comfortable.
A single (maybe a double) bed with a mosquito net over it is what you are likely to get (although camping is also an option if you want to bring your own tent).
La Isla has also recently constructed a private cabin a couple of hundred meters from the main lodge that puts you right in the middle of the jungle. It is a bit more “luxurious” than the main cabin and costs a bit more per night, but it is built in the rustic style of everything else.
You also have the opportunity to sleep in one of the canopy towers if you like. It has been fitted with a couple of single beds, mosquito nets, and even a light.
Water at La Isla is ozone purified after being pumped in from a nearby stream and the bathing water is cold local stream water.
The place is completely off the grid, running on solar that Jurgen has set up and maintains himself (having a mechanical engineer on hand is nice).
Electricity is available 24 hours a day.
There is also very reliable high-speed Star Link satellite internet.
And, because things get dirty easily in the jungle, there is a washing machine (available for a fee).
The experience at La Isla is, by and large, self-serve, which is to be expected, given how affordable everything is.
You get three meals a day, and if you’re staying for an extended period, your room is cleaned, and the linens are changed regularly.
What’s more, there is no formal guiding service at La Isla (although some of the Colombian birding companies bring their clients here).
The trails are well-marked, well-maintained and interlinking, so it would be difficult to get lost.
If you are looking for a local licensed guide, Jurgen’s right-hand man, Estheban, a local Indigenous guy with intimate knowledge of the forests surrounding the lodge and a good general understanding of the local flora and fauna (especially the birds), is available for hire.
If you want to explore La Isla independently, there are usually other visitors you can team up with (whatever your interests are).
The atmosphere and people at La Isla are also what make it so special.
You might find yourself sharing the lodge with herpetologists and botanists, ornithologists, birders, fieldherpers, and perhaps even a documentary film crew. Places like La Isla, which bring together people with niche wildlife and nature travel interests, are fantastic places to make friends and learn.
Getting to La Isla involves a multi-leg journey, which starts in either Colombia or Ecuador and includes a combination of planes, busses and/or private cars, and a hike in.
I won’t spend time breaking the whole thing down because Jurgen and Co. have already done that for you. You can find those instructions here.
La Isla is not only unique in the Colombian Amazon but one of just a couple of similar sites in the entire Amazon biome–private reserves and research sites in the Amazonian foothills of the Western Andes that provide access to a, by and large, pristine Napo Moist Forest-Montane Forest transition zone.
Hunting is completely off-limits on the reserve. There are no dogs, no domestic cats wandering about killing at will, no chickens or roosters, no non-native animals of any kind.
The bird, invertebrate, herpetofauna, plant and mammal life here is mindblowing and you don’t have to go far to see it. With no light or noise pollution, it is easy to feel like you are one of just a handful of people on the entire planet while staying here.
If your Amazonian experience so far has been purely lowland, La Isla is going to be quite different to anything you will have seen.
Again, some things to note
- Conditions here are very muddy, and rubber boots (which can be purchased in the nearby town of Orito before continuing on to La Isla) are a necessity. Hiking shoes are not going to cut it here.
- It rains a lot (more than any other part of the Amazon).
- The location and elevation make La Isla quite a bit cooler than the rest of the Amazon.
- Herping here yields excellent finds, but it can be much harder work than in the lowlands, with consecutive rained-out nights.
- Bring a sweater and comfortable long pants for evening temperatures.
- Things can take a long time to dry here
- Keep your electronics well protected.